Thursday, February 04, 2010

Religious Rituals for the Departed

Religious Rituals for the Departed

By Rev. John-Brian Paprock
Special to Capital Newspapers
Originally published in Life & Legacy, October 2008
Original photo by John-Brian Paprock published in Life & Legacy 2009
Life & Legacy is a publication of Capital Newspapers, Madison, Wisconsin


Eternal memory.
Eternal memory.
Eternal memory.

The funeral dirge of the Orthodox Christian tradition chanted and sung at every memorial service, including the funeral and burial. For 40 days, those that have died are remembered in prayer and song, with the burning of incense. These remind the living of the sacredness of death. Orthodox Christians are comforted in these religious reminders that may be clothed with cultural nuances.

Death is an experience shared by all humanity. In each religious tradition in every corner of the world, there are profound and practical rituals that reflect the beliefs of those that have passed away and those that remain. Cultural and ethnic variety within religious traditions may reflect unique characteristics of the land, the language or continuing truth best taught through the unique voice of an indigenous culture.

Some religious death rituals are seeped in the indigenous practices of the place of its origin. In Wisconsin, and in America, most of the rituals are carried with immigrants.


American Indian rituals could be considered indigenous to the continent. Most contemporary American Indian death and grieving rituals are mixed with Christian practices.

The practice of sacred burials continues to this day. Some are similar to the ancient mound builders whose conical burial mounds are protected in the same state and federal laws as church cemeteries. Although there is evidence that these mounds were used for burials into the 19th Century, urban development and ignorance destroyed many of these sacred burial sites and it became dangerous to continue the practice. Most contemporary American Indians have adopted the cemetery from Euro-American practices. Although the markers can be similar to tombstones, Ojibwe practice is to build small houses above the grave for the comfort of the departed. Many other tribes leave graves unmarked or use a tree or rock without adornment.

Roman Catholic also observe burial sites and sacred. Cemeteries are blessed with sacramental ceremony so that the ground of the entire cemetery is consecrated. Orthodox Christians also bless the ground that will be used for burial. Crosses have historically been used as markers for Christian burial. Some European cultures, although Christian, used trees, especially evergreen trees. This can be seen in many Irish Catholic and Scandinavian Lutheran cemeteries.

Christian rituals are a mixture of ethnic and cultural practices that merged with the Jewish practices around the time of early Christian development. In fact, most Orthodox Christian Churches still have their main prelacies in the Mideast. Islam, too, developed in the same region. Both have adapted the basic Jewish rituals with teachings from their respective prophets. Jewish, Muslim and Orthodox Christian practices are remarkably similar in body preparations for burial. The body is ritually washed and prepared for burial without embalming while Psalms and hymns are chanted and sung.

Jewish religious rituals have a great continuity through various ethnic communities where the Diaspora has survived. Even between Jewish denominations (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform) the basic rituals are the same. Some contemporary rituals will use English instead of Hebrew and some of the prayers will be shortened, but the integrity of common ancestral tradition is intact. Burial is among family. If that is not possible, then a gravesite among other Jewish graves is preferred.

Of course, in those religious traditions where the physical body is more of a vehicle, death is more like the shedding of a cocoon. These traditions are mostly in the Eastern Religions where there is a practice of ritual cremation. Hinduism, along with other religious traditions from India, have elaborate memorial rituals at temples without the body. The body is tended in a loving manner, ritually cleaned and then cremated. The ashes, ideally, scattered in the sacred Ganges River, but other rivers and bodies of water are used.

Even if the body is buried, Buddhist and most other Eastern religious practices have the prayers and memorials songs in the temple or the home. Burning of incense and wreathes of flowers adorning a large picture of the deceased are displayed in the place of honor.

In almost all religious traditions, there is a common comfort with expressions of community loss and memorial. It is the time when family and community members come together to share in the grief and support one another.

This common grief and comfort is demonstrated by ritual foods and meals. Almost every cultural expression has a particular memorial food or a special meal that is prepared. Some make a special plate for the deceased, including samples of every dish brought to the honoring feast. In many traditions, the grieving family is not allowed to cook and is completely dependent upon the help of the community.

Death is an end and a beginning. It is a common human experience, as sacred as birth. Through the variety of religious rituals, practices and traditions surrounding death, humanity has found comfort and reassurance of religious understanding. It is the memory of the departed that is honored as the linear life has ended for one, but continues for others.


Rev. John-Brian Paprock is the Orthodox Priest of Holy Transfiguration Orthodox chapel on Madison's northside and a chaplain at UW Hospital and HospiceCare, Inc.

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